Wild Wives by Charles Willeford

“The rain hit hard at my window. It slowed down to a whisper, then hit hard again. All afternoon the rain had been doing this while I sat behind my desk with my feet up, doing nothing. I looked around at the ratty little office and wondered vaguely what time it was.

It wasn’t much of an office. The four walls were painted a sickly lime-green, and the only bright spot in the room was the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar with its flame-red background. Two ladder-backed straight chairs, a two-drawer file cabinet, a cheap combination typing-and-writing desk and a swivel chair completed the furnishings. The rugless floor was laid with brown and yellow linoleum blocks.”

In Wild Wives, author Charles Willeford presents us with yet another perverse protagonist. While in this novella, private detective Jake Blake may appear to be a fairly typical private detective noir character, as the story plays out, it becomes increasingly obvious that Blake is almost as strange as The Woman Chaser‘s protagonist, Richard Hudson. It’s amazing that Willeford wrote and published this in 1959.

When the story begins, Jake Blake is sitting in his dingy office located in the “mezzanine of the King Edward Hotel” in San Francisco listening to the rain outside. While he acknowledges that this is a terrible location for the office of a private detective, he admits that he “hung onto it” because he also lives in the hotel and because it was “cheap.” There is no work, and Blake is already in hot water with the hotel management over his bills, but Blake isn’t particularly perturbed. That afternoon, two women come into the office separately, and his life is never the same.

His first visitor is an annoying, precocious teenager who insists that she has the talent and wit to become Blake’s undercover operative, and while Blake momentarily contemplates giving the girl a spanking, he opts instead to send her on a wild goose chase. The second visitor is Florence Weintraub, a young woman with eyes like “freshly washed blackberries” who hires Blake to shake off two burly henchmen she claims are ordered to follow her by her overly protective father. As it turns out, Florence is lying. Her husband, the much older, and very wealthy Mr. Weintraub, employs the men to follow his rather wild wife around San Francisco. “She wasn’t the type who is hard-to-get; she was anxious-to-get.”

There are many fascinating aspects to this noir novel. The private detective who is hoodwinked by a beautiful woman is a popular archetype in noir fiction, but they usually have some principles to cling to when the web of deceit, corruption and intrigue descends. This is not the case with Willeford’s protagonist. From the start, it’s obvious that Jake Blake is perverse and amoral. There’s no gutter nobility here–forget Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe–Blake is as self-serving and opportunistic as they come. Blake descends into a tawdry affair with Florence that begins with a steamy encounter in the Knockout Club and continues through a wild ride to Las Vegas.

As Blake and Florence team up out of sheer necessity, it becomes clear that Florence is deranged and psychotic. But what about Blake? Is he any better? As the story unfolds, hints begin to appear that give shape to Blake’s perverse nature. Amoral, cold, and perverse, he’s more than a match for femme fatale Florence.

This is not as developed a story as The Woman Chaser. Some plot elements are sketchy (the art dealer, for example). But for those who want something a little different, this is an antidote for all those novels with gooey happy endings.

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Filed under Fiction, Willeford, Charles

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